Bees

First Spring Check on the Beehives Coming Out of Winter

Last weekend it was reasonably nice with temperatures creeping into the 60s with gusty winds. It was not the ideal time to check on the bees, but it was close enough and aligned with a break in my schedule.

I didn’t plan on doing a full inspection just yet but I did plan to get in enough to make sure the hives were even still alive. As a first year beekeeper without a mentor, I certainly did everything I read and gleaned from forums to ensure winter survival. Yet being realistic…I wasn’t sure it was enough.

The weaker hive from last year had about 14 frames of stores going into winter where the stronger hive had 18. I left each hive a half pound of sugar atop newspaper on top of the frames to provide winter snacks. Others use fondant or sugar cakes which I find to be an unnecessary use of time and energy. All forms of dry sugar are consumed by bees solely for immediate nourishment whether it is plain old granulated sugar or if it been processed into something else.

This “weak” hive was literally buzzing with activity as I approached. Upon opening the hive, most of the sugar remained untouched by the bees. However a few small hive beetles scurried from the light. In large numbers in a weak hive, these beetles could be a problem. Otherwise a healthy colony will deal with them just fine on their own. The main cluster of bees was spread across the bottom half of 3 frames in the upper super. No cause of concern was found so I moved onto the next hive.

My “stronger” hive was alarming even from a distance. No bees were flying in or out and there was not a single guard out front. Opening the hive caused nothing in the way of the anticipated buzzing sound and revealed entirely consumed sugar that was left for winter snacking. Uh-oh!

Turned out the bees were just cold which makes sense as the siting of this hive does provide much early day spring sun. The cluster was small and confined to either side of a single frame. My strong hive, while alive and seemingly happy, has fallen behind the previously weaker hive!

All that was done to either colony was adding the hive top feeder with 2 gallons of syrup and removal of the insulating hive wrap. Next chance I get I will return to remove the entrance reducers which I held off due to the weather forecast. Today strong gusts, snow flurries and near freezing temperatures shows that was a good decision, and if any syrup remains unconsumed, the decision to feed might not have been a good one.

Now my main concern is catching the building of queen cells, and spliting those frames to a Nuc the day that the bees cap those cells all in an attempt to simulate swarming. Time to buy and paint some nuc hives!

Standard
Bees

DIY: $9.33 Insulating Hive Wrap for wintering honeybees

Wrapping the hive for winter is likely not necessary in my region. However everything on a farm boils down to energy management: less energy spent on keeping the cluster warm over winter translates into less energy consumption. This both extends the winter resources as well as lessens honey consumption. The latter point translates into more honey remaining in the spring, thus less need to refill the frames consumed over winter, thus allowing the bees to start storing excess honey sooner, thus increasing the harvest of the following year.

Total price tally (from amazon for universal considerations):

($17 for insulation + $11 for velcro) / 3 hive wraps can be made from these materials = $9.33 per wrap

First of all, I did not take very good pictures of the process so hopefully I can describe the process adequately with words. Secondly, I realize this post is late as I never got it written before I took my break in the fall. Third, as with all of my beekeeping posts [so far] I use 10 frame langstroth hives.

Tools Needed:

  • String or something to measure (tailor’s tape, etc)
  • Scissors
  • Empty hive body (can be any size, we are just after the outer perimeter measurement)
  • Rubbing alcohol and a rag for cleaning

Materials Needed:

  • Reflective Bubble Insulation (Affiliate link) 16″ wide by 25 feet (enough for 3 hives of 2 deep supers each) ($16.25 at time of writing)
  • Industrial Velcro, (Affiliate link) 2″ wide by 4 feet (enough for 2.75 hive wraps but see notes below) (I bought mine at walmart for $8 if I remember correctly but use that link as a reference to the exact product but save some money getting it locally) ($11)

IMG_20151102_133006

Procedure:

  1. Use the string to measure the outside of your hive body
    1. My hive bodies are 19-7/8″x16-5/8″ for a total parameter of 73.5″
    2. My actual measurement was just over 74″
    3. I like to compare the measurement to the expected perimeter calculation based off of factory measurements for extra assurance but this is likely not necessary
  2. Add 2 inches to the parameter total to accommodate the overlap needed for velcro
  3. Cut the insulating material to length
  4. Clean the last two inches along opposing edges with alcohol and a rag to ensure adhesive sticks well
  5. Apply velcro to OPPOSING FACES ON OPPOSING ENDS so the velco will align when wrapped around the hive
    1. for clarity: imagine the insulating wrap is a piece of paper. Put on strip of velcro on the top of the front of the page. Put the opposing strip on the bottom of the back of the page.
    2. ALSO BE SURE TO use the two different types of velcro at either of the two ends the loop velcro can catch the fuzzy velcro
  6. Apply to hives!

Picture of the finished product:

IMG_20151112_103626

Oops! On my original design I forgot to account for the overlap needed for the velcro to grab its opposing self so the insulation is cut to the exact perimeter of my supers. Which brings me to my next point.

Notes

This velcro is incredibly strong. After 2 months of use, the maximum of 1/4″ overlap I could barely stretch out of it has held the hive wraps in place without a single issue. I’m actually worried about being able to get the wrap off in the spring had I provided a full 2″ of overlap. After all, its advertised to hold fire extinguishers to the wall! I was also originally planning to reinforce the adhesion to the wrap by stitching the velcro in place. I decided not to for 2 reasons:

  1. The insulation is like unpoppable bubble wrap used as a packing material so stitching through it would have ruined the insulating air pocket under the strips of velcro
  2. After playing with the velcro, I decided it was unnecessary. Ok Ok…I actually dropped the velcro and almost destroyed the carpet trying to detach them from each other. If the adhesion wears out down the road, you all will be the first to know!

Insulation power:

The insulating wrap I linked to has a extremely low insulation value: R=1.04 which is roughly equivalent to 1 inch of solid wood, increased to 4 if a 3/4″ gap is made. That gap could be achieved by putting blocks of wood under each of the 8 corners but the work required was not worth it for me. Regardless, this current set up serves me fine as I doubt I even need insulation. If your location calls for more insulation, I would use many many many layers of this or use the age old method of hay bales (or both in combination) or leave snow piled up around the hive with the entrances clear for ventilation.

Dimensions:

I chose 16 inch insulation because overwintering, my hives are 2 deep supers: each 9-5/8″ tall or about 19″ total. The 3 inches of difference leaves the bottom entrances open for ventilation as well as the top entrance (although I keep that one plugged unless condensation becomes an issue). If you have a different hive configuration you will need to calculate or measure the required width and buy or cut the insulation to that figure.

Similarly, I use 10 frame deep supers so if your configuration is different you will need to calculate or measure the length requirement of the insulation. Don’t worry it is simple and discussed in steps 1-2 above.

Final thoughts

The setting sun can hit these hives and reflect off in blinding fashion that makes it look like the hives are on fire. If your apiary has a line of sight to a roadway or bee thieves are a valid concern, you may want cover the outside with an additional layer of fabric or paint. Also this makes me wonder if the wrap is causing the hives to lose that warmth but I feel that keeping in heat is more valuable than capturing it in the winter (although backed by no calculations).

Also after seeing how ferociously strong the velcro is, next time I am going to use only a few inches at each corner and maybe on in the middle instead of lining the entire length of the end of the insulation.

Lastly, I may build a collar of sorts for the hives out of scrap wood to give the insulation the 3/4″ gap that quadruples its insulating rating. It would be a simple wood frame that sits down over the hive to be wrapped instead of the hive itself.

Honestly with the low insulation this provides, the benefit is likely more psychological to the beekeeper than anything else. As bees are best left undisturbed over winter, it is a hard time for a keeper who is uncomfortable with taking a hands-off approach. This at least provides a piece of mind that the keeper is doing everything in her or his power to help the bees survive!

Standard
Bees, GIS Planning, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Trees for Bees 6: GIS Map and honorable mention

Other posts in this series:

Trees for Bees introduction

Trees for Bees 2: Planning

Trees for Bees 3: Sumac

Trees for Bees 4: Sourwood

Trees for Bees 5 : Basswood

 

You may notice one species mentioned in the first post is absent: Liriodendron tulipifera aka Tulip Poplar.

“Liriodendron tulipifera tulip close” by Dcrjsr – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Liriodendron_tulipifera_tulip_close.jpg#/media/File:Liriodendron_tulipifera_tulip_close.jpg

This species is an abundant nectar producer early in the season helping colonies build up food stores and population numbers. While other bee gardeners are full encouraged to consider this tree, it will not be planted on the farm for a few reasons. Tulip poplars require loose, fertile soils as their roots systems are small, fleshy, soft and to put it succinctly: weak. It is also susceptible to numerous pests and diseases. Combining these attributes with its huge form and full sun requirements, the decision was made to plant the more valuable (regarding bees) Basswood in the vacant locations despite the beautiful blooms that resemble tulips, thus the common name.

Final Plans and Map

Putting everything together, there will be sumacs planted on the hill that raises the farm entrance from the pasture as well as below the powerlines. Sourwoods will be planted between the farm entrance track and the main road as well as along the fenceline in the pasture. Lastly, Basswoods will occupy the areas where they have room to spread.

Note: I apologize for the low res imagery. It is used for faster processing as well as the only aerial image saved offline for when I work on maps at the farm where my cellular data is the only access to internet!

That concludes this series…I hope you aren’t sick of bee talk!

Standard
Bees, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Trees for Bees

I am a huge advocate of planning trees ahead of time, especially if they are to be established where turf dominates. By laying down a biodegradable barrier like cardboard and covering it with mulch, the turf is smothered while the mulch encourages the fungal dominated soil in which woody-stemmed plants thrive.

In regard to honeybees, the small volume of garden plantings of flowers sadly do little in the way of nourishing the hive. After all, a single bee visits 50-1oo flowers per day, and 2,000,000 flowers to produce 1 pound of honey of which 100 pounds are produced per healthy hive in a good year. Bee-attracting flowers still feed smaller native bee populations and lure bees to your valuable crops so there is still great value in a pollinator garden!

Trees on the other hand, are a different story. And would you expect anything else from me? With my passionate love of trees, I plan to use them instead of (well, in combination with) pasture to feed humans, animals and insects alike. Honeybees focus their foraging efforts on areas with a high density of blooms as evolutionary biology encourages as efficient behavior as possible. So blooming trees are an ideal nectar source.

The trait of cyclical production of trees that affects fruit yields holds true for nectar yields as well. Where fruit trees see bumper crops followed by small yields the next year(s), trees follow a cycle of 2-8 years between massive nectar flows. So like always, diversity is key. This resource produced by NASA is great for determining what is blooming in your region.

Take the basswood for example. A single Tilia americana tree can produce huge surpluses of top quality honey during a 2 week bloom in June or July. I’ve seen numbers of 20 gallons per mature tree, or 800-1,100 pound per acre of planting.

The next tree to consider is one I have fond memories of from college Dendrology class. The class was once per week for 4 hours outside in ANY weather. Finals week of the fall semester in the mountains of southwest Virginia is when the whether turns from crisp calm autumn to blustery cold winter. As it happened, our outdoor dendrology final was in the midst of a brutally cold freezing rain storm. People cried, hands were numb, scared mumblings of frostbite were uttered but only when the “Rain-proof” paper started dissolving did the teaching staff take action. The next tree was to be the last!

One of the useful traits for identifying plants is taste. Obviously with Toxicodendron radicans being one of our subjects, a compromise was made where we were allowed to ask the teachers if a leaf from the quiz subject was safe to taste. Carefully tiptoeing the line between an B+ and an A- in the class, the last quiz tree of the final exam was critical. And I was stumped.

Most of the other stumped students just wrote Black gum, which was our default for generic looking tree, in haste to return to the warmth and dryness of their vehicles. After milling around trying to control the nerves and adrenaline leaving me as the last remaining student, I finally asked the instructor if I it was safe taste the long, ovate brilliantly red leaf. With a smile that revealed the answer, I wrote Ericaceae Oxydendrum arboreum Sourwood to secure an A- for the semester.

Once I started researching sourwoods, I found that they are quite beautiful when flowering and as I already knew, a brilliant red in the fall as this image from Oregon State university demonstrates:

Better yet, they are shade tolerant which will be an important attribute in my design. Even their slow growth rate is advantageous.

Sumacs are another tree that requires consideration for both honeybees and the native pollinators. For both types of pollinators, the three months of bloom supplies ample pollen and nectar. Here is a study that recorded bee activity on staghorn sumac stands in canada. It found that bees worked the male flowers for pollen in the morning and female flowers for nectar in the evening. For the native bees, the soft pithy stems of Rhus trees/shrubs provide nesting sites as the wood is easily bored. With aesthetics in mind, sumacs also turn a brilliant red in the fall.

Tulip poplars produce so much nectar that it stains concrete walkways beneath urban plantings. The beautiful cup shaped flowers of the Liriodendron tulipifera give bees a nice platform to land and drink from as they resemble tulips, hence the common name. It blooms early so it helps feed colonies and pollinators as they build up their nests and populations in the spring.

Black locust are already all over my pasture and the surrounding woods. In fact the time that my bees lost interest in the provided feeder coincided with the locust bloom. No additional considerations will be made for locust plantings as they are already numerous on the farm. I also let most locust trees grow because they fix nitrogen into the soil as they are a leguminous tree and they provide wood that is incredibly hard and rot resistant. On my land at least, the black locusts commonly lose limbs and break apart negating the need and labor required to fell them. Out of the local natives, locust wood makes the best fence posts and firewood.

I’ll expand on these trees and my plans for them in the near future!

Standard
Bees

Bees are gearing up for winter!

Winter is the most trying time for bees and their keepers. Last year, Virginia lost 45.6% of its beehives which the state attributes mostly to winter loss. I will expand more on this in the future.

For now, I want to share this frame. While it is a work in progress by the bees, it is just about perfect in terms of winter preparation.

Why is it so perfect?

Well:

  • The brood where the main cluster of bees is expected to hang out all winter is toward the bottom of the frame
  • The bees are moving honey and pollen, their sole source of carbohydrates and protein, respectively, into the cells at the top of the frame

Bees cluster to stay warm in the winter and the entire cluster moves through the hive consuming resources through the winter. Winter loss is usually due to the the bees not having a food source within the cluster as it moves through the hive. Commonly, a colony will be found dead with full frames of honey left untouched but since the honey was not within the proximity of the cluster the bees did not consume it.

Thus in the frame above, the cluster of bees working in the brood area will have access to nourishment on that same frame.

Only a few things are within the beekeeper’s power to help the bees through the winter so he or she can only do so much before they must leave it in the hands (or mandibles?) of the hive. However I can record the activities and progress of my hives in order to learn and do better the following years.

Next spring will be proof if my management is successful, and if not, at least I have recorded data to help me be more successful in the next season.

Standard
Bees

Accidental but still beneficial cover crop mistake

My brain works in mysterious ways. I even wrote about this exact subject on my post regarding native pollinators. I stated that New Zealand was faced with the choice of importing Red Clover seed every year, or importing a bumblebee from the United Kingdom to pollinate the flowers to produce their own crop of seed.

Yet somehow I failed to make the connection that my choice in Red Clover cover cropping in the garden would not provide much nourishment my own honeybees. Even so, I am happy to feed the native bees all the same!

The flowers of red clover are too small for the short mouthparts of honeybees to access freely so it is not a reliable nectar source. Or so the old sources say!

Now if you search any beekeeping forum for recommendations on the best clover, the answers are varied. It really seems like all the varieties work to some degree while the one I picked for my food plots is falling out of favor (yellow sweet clover). Regardless, they all fix nitrogen and contain good protein for grazing and nourish either my bees or the native pollinators.

Oh well, I am just going to use the shotgun approach and try to observe my bees. There is lots of Dutch white clover that I’ve seen my bees working in early spring that is growing in the small areas of the barnyard that I mow. In fact mowing white clover will cause it to continuously bloom extending the nectar flow indefinitely until frost. I plan to overseed the turf with more white clover this fall.

I recently planted a wildlife plot in the back of the pasture where my goals are to nourish my four legged wild cohabitants as well as my bees. The plot was disked then broadcast very sparsely with buckwheat as a nurse and more densely with rapeseed and forage turnips. After disking again I broadcast some sweet, crimson and red clover on top before mulching lightly with straw.

Now growing in tandem with buckwheat as a garden cover crop, one bed contains sweet clover while the rest contain red clover. To make my life easier by removing one extra decision, I hope a pattern emerges regarding which clover grows best in the general pasture, and which variety my bees prefer. A post will be made if such a revelation is made!

Standard
Bees, Garden

Finally!

I caught a few of my ladies in my blooming buckwheat!

image

image

Look at the pollen pants!

I thought my bees disliked the buckwheat or were maybe more attracted to the neighbors soybeans. Up until this point, I’ve seen carpenter bees 5 different species of wasps and 21 different butterflies (assuming males and females look alike in each species) but no honeybees!

I’ve been taking pictures of many of the native pollinators I find in the buckwheat and will consolidate them into a single post.

Standard